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Manifesto: Let’s Stop Calling People Bad People!

By Sara Mead — September 04, 2013 5 min read
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You are a bad person if you judge other people based on where they send their children school. Not bad like murderer bad--but bad like US-magazine-calling-pregnant-starlets-"fat"-bad. So, pretty bad.

I am an education policy wonk: My analytic skills and knowledge of education policy enable me to make informed judgments about the relative merits of, say, different approaches to designing quality metrics for pre-k programs. That does not entitles me to judge other people’s choices about how they raise their children, provided those choices are not illegal, abusive, or neglectful. And education debates would be better off if we stopped having stupid debates about individual people’s educational and parenting choices.

So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Stop judging other people’s personal decisions. Will this fix public education? No! But I think we can have a more productive conversation if we avoid making things personal or pointing fingers at parents whose choices we might disagree with.

Parents have a lot of power. But neither parent choice, nor constraining that choice is--on its own--sufficient to generate the kind of improvement needed in our public schools. Moreover, while some forms of parent advocacy can have a tremendous impact on improving public education, some types of parent engagement can be zero sum (little Olivia’s vocal mom makes sure she’s assigned to the best first grade teacher, so little Crystal, whose parents are less engaged, gets a worse teacher) or even exacerbate dysfunctional, interest-driven school system politics (as when small factions of parents advocates vocally around specific niche interests that don’t serve the broader community--such as banning sex ed). So let’s not get self-righteous in claiming that engaged parents always serve the broader interest. Nor should we expect them to: A parent’s foremost obligation is to his or her child, and it’s not always the case that an individual child’s interests align with those of the broader school or community.

There are lots of reasons that parents choose to send their children to either public or private schools. Absent intimate knowledge of a particular family’s values, circumstances, and experiences, and the needs and strengths of their children, you and I are hardly positioned to judge whether those reasons are compelling or not.

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! I’ve had this conversation with numerous friends and acquaintances, who have arrived at a variety of answers, including staying put, charter schools, private schools, homeschool, and moving. Each of these families had a unique set of family circumstances, financial or geographic constraints, and needs. None of them took the decision lightly. All of them ultimately made the decision based on what they hoped was best for their child and family given the available options.

I could tell you a story here about my own experiences in a variety of very good and just ok public schools growing up. I could tell you about the amazing elementary school teacher who changed my life in a rural school district where my academic options would have been very narrow had my family stayed their through my adolescence. I could tell you about the high school where I had access to some great AP classes, some pretty lousy social experiences, and a range extracurriculars that included soccer but weren’t a great fit to my interests. I could tell you that I left high school well-prepared for college and, because of that preparation, learned a fair amount there, too. I’m doing great, and I’m grateful for my education. There are parts of my educational experience I’d hope all kids could have, and parts I’d hope all or most of them could avoid.

But should you take anything from this in your quest to become a better person? Probably not, because my experience is just one anecdote.

Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. Parents care about their children’s social experiences, which includes not just diversity (which comes in a variety of forms and can be found in all sorts of places), but also things like whether people in a school are nice to their child, or whether their child’s peers and teachers reinforce their family’s values. (Shockingly, some parents would prefer their children not get drunk before basketball games--whether with kids from trailer parks, suburban McMansions, or hip urban lofts.)

Some of my (pretty morally decent) colleagues and friends send their children to private schools, others send them to charter or district public schools. I know a few people who homeschool. It’s really not my business to ask them why, but sometimes, given what I do, they tell me anyway. Here is what stuck with me: These are decisions that, for a lot of people, involve both uncertainty and trade offs. Yes, everyone wants good teachers and a safe school experience for their child. But beyond that, people want a lot of different things for their kids, some of which are in tension. In some families I know, the husband and wife have very different priorities for their child’s schooling. And no school, whether it’s a No Excuses charter school, a private school with tuition equal to that of an Ivy League college, or a well-funded suburban public school, can perfectly deliver on everything a caring parent would want for their child. But there are definitely things that public policies can do to reduce the uncertainty that parents face and to expand the range of quality public options so that fewer parents have to make really painful trade-offs.

Even then, trade-offs are inevitable. And some people will always have access to better options than others. What’s not inevitable--what’s indeed unconscionable--is that all too many American families have access to no good educational options at all. Guilt-tripping people for the choices they make in a world of imperfect options--whether it’s to stay in their local district school, move to another place, attend a charter, private school, or homeschool--does nothing to address the underlying problem.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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